by Athanasia Papadimitriou
Titles for Priests’ Wives
According to His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople,
“in our ecclesiastical tradition, [the priest’s wife] is addressed as presbytera, the other half of the presbyteros (priest).”
Priests’ wives are known by different titles in various Orthodox traditions and jurisdictions. Although the titles are different, they all acknowledge the special place of the priest’s wife in the parish.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, the title of the priest’s wife is presbytera (also spelled as presvytera in modern transliteration).
The title of presbytera is found among ancient Christian writings, and had several different usages. One usage applied to a deaconess who assisted a priest in different tasks.
In the early Church, a deaconess was an older Christian woman, usually widowed, who offered her service or diakonia (hence the more common title, “deaconess”) to the Church. Her limited duties included keeping order in the church and helping adult women dress after emerging from the water during the Sacrament of Holy Baptism. She also visited sick women, as well as Christian women who were household members of pagan homes.
Nevertheless, the most common usage of this title was for the wife of the priest. In the Greek Orthodox Church, this is the current usage of the title of presbytera. In colloquial Greek, however, the priest’s wife is referred to as papadia, which comes from papas, another word for priest.
In the Antiochian Orthodox Church, the priest’s wife is called khouria.
In the Albanian Orthodox Church, she is called priftereshia.
In the Romanian Orthodox Church, she is called preoteasa.
In the Russian Orthodox Church, the priest’s wife is called matushka, which means “little mother.” How touching and appropriate this title is for the priest’s wife who loves and cares for all of the people in her husband’s parish!
Some priests’ wives do not wish to be called by their title. They insist on being called by their given baptismal name. Perhaps they wish to be treated like any other woman in the parish. Her wishes ought to be respected, but many people ignore them. No matter how hard the priest’s wife might try to tell people to call her by her first name; she is still the wife of the priest in their eyes.
For a newly ordained priest’s wife, taking on her new title is symbolic of taking on her new life. From then on, few will call her by her baptismal name. It is funny to be in a gathering of priests’ wives when someone calls out the title of the priest’s wife, such as presbytera in Greek. All of the priests’ wives will turn around, thinking the person is addressing her.
This is how deeply this title is carved in the heart of every priest’s wife.
From A.:Papademetriou’s “Presbytera” The Life, Mission, and Service of the Priest’s Wife.” Ed. Somerset Hall Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2004.